|Clarice Taylor, Dee Dee Bridgewater. (Photos: Martha Swope.)|
|Tiger Haynes, Ted Ross, Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle.|
Any show that attempts to come up with a totally original approach to a well-loved and deeply familiar classic will encounter enormous obstacles. These The Wiz managed to overcome by turning L. Frank Baum’s beloved 1900 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which generated successful stage shows in its own time, into a jive-talking musical in which every character and line is expressed in contemporary African-American cultural terms. Even the myriad fans of the great 1939 MGM movie found in it much to entrance them.
Critical opinion on William F. Brown’s slangy book, which had Dorothy swept up from a Kansas that resembled a typical ghetto, was divided. Douglas Watt called it “spotty,” Clive Barnes accused it of being “somewhat charmless,” and Martin Gottfried objected to the very premise of an “all black” version of non-Black material, observing that “the second act fell apart.” Edwin Wilson termed the book “undistinguished,” though audacious, and John Simon regretted that “it cannot make up its feeble mind” about its point of view. Yet Howard Kissel approved its “sassy archness,” and Jack Kroll enjoyed its “warmth and flair.”
Contrast also marked the reception of Charlie Small’s rock, gospel, and soul music score, which was seen by Watt as “dull, . . . commonplace, and . . . uninspired,” and “too insistent and oddly familiar” by Barnes. Yet Kroll thought it packed with “drive, wit and theatricality," and Gottfried conceded that it was imbued with “the slickness but also the unbeatable drive of the Motown sound.”
|Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle.|
The impression given by most reviewers was that, despite the inadequacies of the libretto and score, The Wiz was so imaginatively conceived and directed, and so enthusiastically performed, that, as Gottfried testified, “you could hardly sit still in your seat.” “The show is alive; a triumph of spirit and performance over material,” said Wilson. Watt ignored all flaws to announce that The Wiz is “so enormously good-natured, spectacular looking and slickly done that it is hard to resist.” John Beaufort called it a “gorgeously prismatic experience,” while T.E. Kalem dubbed it “a carnival of fun. It grins from the soul, sizzles with vitality, and flaunts the gaudy lines of an exploding rainbow.” Kroll’s opinion that this was “One of the most cyclonic blasts of high energy to hit Broadway in long time,” was supported by Brendan Gill saying it was “a big, fervent, handsome, and skillfully directed show and deserves a goodly run.” Barnes, however, while approving of the “first-rate and highly innovative” staging of Geoffrey Holder, could not prevent feeling that the show left him “cold.” Simon, as so often, faulted almost every part of the production, from the design to the direction to the performances.
Holder, who also designed the fantastical costumes, received general acclaim. Innovative visuals predominated, including Tom H. John’s eye-popping sets, particularly that for the Emerald City, while Holder’s costumes for the Munchkins, Scarecrow (Hinton Battle), Lion (Ted Ross), and Tinman (Tiger Haynes) were considered novel conceptions that were in no way copies of those in the movie. He even devised a way of making the Yellow Brick Road human, by dressing four tall dancers in huge blond Afros ad yellow brick jackets.
George Faison’s first Broadway choreography gig was exemplary, a highlight being his creation of a tornado suggested by a dancer whirling about with a very long strip of black cloth attached to her hair. “As this human twister moves across and around the stage, the black strip unwinds until it envelops everything in sight. Other dancers appear with umbrellas inside out and streamers on poles,” wrote Wilson.
Fifteen-year-old Stephanie Mills became a star for her performance as Dorothy, which she played for much of the long run. “Her eyes are filled with wonder and sometimes seemed brimming with tears, and her voice is just sensational,” shouted Kissel. Simon, however, demurred, calling her “untalented and unappealing.” The rest of the cast also showed mettle, including the Munchkin chorus, played by dancers on their knees. The witches were wonderful as portrayed by Mabel King, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Clarice Taylor, and the still dynamic Andre De Shields--subject of a lengthy Times article just today--gained acclamation for his white-suited, pimp-like, epicene Wiz. Battle, Ross, and Haynes as Dorothy’s unhuman companions were equally admired.
The song-packed score included such numbers as "The Feeling We Once Had," "Tornado," "He's the Wizard," "Soon as I Get Home," "Ease on Down the Road," "Slide Some Oil to Me," "I'm a) Mean Ole Lion," "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard," "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?," "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News," "Everybody Rejoice," "Wonder Wonder Why," "Believe in Yourself," and "Home." The Wiz landed the Best Musical award from the Drama Desk and Tonys. Drama Desk Awards went to Ross (Supporting Actor, Musical), Smalls (Music and Lyrics), Holder (Costume Design), and Faison (Choreographer). Tonys were handed to Holder (Direction, Musical), Bridgewater (Featured Actress, Musical), Holder (Costume Design), Faison (Choreographer), Ross (Actor, Musical), and Smalls (Score), while Tony nominations were given to King (Featured Actress, Musical), Battle (Featured Actor, Musical), and Brown (Book).
Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.
Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.
Next up: The Women.